Photo: Felix Carroll
Brother Albin Milewski, MIC, in his office at the Marian Helpers Center in Stockbridge, Mass.
This past Thanksgiving, my wife and I were invited to share a meal with the Marians of the Immaculate Conception at the "Big House."
No, we weren't "sent to the Big House" as part of a prison ministry. The Big House is the monastery at 4 Prospect Hill Road, a large, white, rambling structure set on some of the loveliest wooded acres under the sun. The Big House has the presence of a prelate, the stateliness of an ocean liner, the solidity of a monument, and the warmth of a wood stove. It's an unlikely though wonderful combination of holiness, humanness, and hospitality. It's the kind of house where, when you go there, you feel as if they have to take you in.
'Mensche' as Noun and Verb
Our invitation came courtesy of Br. Albin Milewski, MIC, 52 years a Marian and 100 percent a mensche. "Mensche" is a Yiddish word coined in the 1930s from the German word for "person." It means a man of integrity and honor. That's Br. Albin, head to toe. He's spent his entire life helping "the least" among us. He can mensche they way Norman Rockwell could paint.
One of the great spiritual clichés centers on the need to see Christ in everyone we meet. It's a cliché because it's been so oft repeated on the strength of its truth. We do have to encounter Jesus in the "other." Most of us manage spottily at best. We "see" Christ when it suits us, when we are in a good mood, or when guilt prompts. On the other hand, there are those blessed souls who don't even have to "try" seeing in this way. They are built to see Jesus in everyone with a built-in set of spiritual x-ray specs. When you are with them, you become Christ. This is the way of Br. Albin.
He was born on a farm in Poland in the 1930s, came of age in the 1940s, served for a year in the Polish communist army in the early '50s, then in that decade, having seen much hardship, dedicated his life to God and humanity by becoming a Marian.
The Contentual Goodness of Coffee Beans
I've known Br. Albin since the Marians contracted me to write for them in August 2006. Over the course of that time, my relationship with Br. Albin has deepened and our friendship has grown. Twice a week, he invites me to his office (Secretary of the Missions) for coffee. Some people make coffee. Brother Albin makes elixirs. I'm not a big coffee drinker (tea's my default beverage) but his coffee is different. It contains the secret ingredient of "goodness," the type that will not be found in any ordinary coffee bean.
I suppose some clever scientist would want to analyze Br. Albin's coffee to see if he could "prove" what I just said, like the non-believing scientist who once brought a consecrated host and wine into the lab to see if they had changed from their normal appearance. Such attempts are doomed to futility, because it's not the microscope or the electron scan that can "see" spirituality and faith, but the person using the equipment.
During one of our coffee klatches, Br. Albin invited my wife and me to the Big House for Thanksgiving. He had checked with the house superior, Br. Ken Galisa, MIC, and had received permission. From where I stand, this is like the President inviting you to attend the Inauguration Ball using his private box — only better.
In the Presence of the Pros
A Scripture reading, prayer, and reflection — led by Fr. Anthony Gramlich, MIC — prefaced the Thanksgiving meal. Thanksgiving with the Marians means you're in the presence of religious pros, from the opening prayers to the last crumb of dessert. The meal at the Big House is cooked by the Oblate Sisters, a Mexican order of nuns that has a convent on the grounds of Eden Hill. Let me tell you: the sisters know their way around a kitchen.
The Oblate Sisters move about in their snow-white habits, bundles of joyous energy topped with laughter and wrapped in smiles. Like the Marians, they are people who are consciously striving to make "saint," the way someone on the corporate ladder would want to make National Vice President or CEO. They do it not in a striving or ambitious way but in the classic, Theresan "little way" — equal parts humility, kindness, compassion, and love.
If TV has turned history into entertainment, technology has turned quiet time into history. We don't have time for each other the way we used to. Cell phones, Blackberries, text messaging, e-mail, and the rest of it force us into a near-24/7 electronic communication that can, at best, "fake" intimacy and provide only a counterfeit of human contact. At worst, it cuts us off at the heart, stranding us in the crowed emptiness of contemporary culture, probably the only desert contrary to spiritual flourishing.
That's the thing I most admired about our Thanksgiving meal. There was no rush — no TV blaring, no radio, no Internet, no iPods, no video screens, no distraction. Everyone had time for each other because everyone made time for each other. We luxuriated into the pleasure of a slow meal, washed down by good wine, enjoyed among friends.
I sat at a round table that featured, clockwise from the top, Fr. Anthony, my wife Paula, myself, Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, and Br. Albin. We were the "loud" table. Every gathering has one, where the talk gets animated and the laughter turns raucous. I must admit. Any table where I can be found tends to end up that way. The Marians and Paula were innocent. They were led on by my infectious example!
Yesterday, a week after Thanksgiving, I had coffee with Br. Albin, my second time in the week.
Folks, do you know the meaning of the word wistful? It's a feeling one gets in recalling a pleasant memory you know can never happen again. If you had a great childhood and you look back upon it, you'll feel wistful. That's how I felt when I joined Br. Albin for coffee. Our times for coffee are coming to an end.
On Jan. 6, Br. Albin will be going home to Poland. He will be moving to the Marians' magnificent Lichen Basilica. He will be helping out with various duties in Lichen (pronounced "Lee-hen"), but he will also wind down into a well-deserved retirement. If anyone deserves a warm homecoming, it's Br. Albin, who's been serving God in the United States since 1965. He has held a number of positions, including for many years the editor of Roze Maryi magazine, published for Polish-speaking members of the Association of Marian Helpers.
Brother Albin has met Presidents and Popes, but you wouldn't know it. He has vast experience of the world, but he doesn't show it — unless, that is, you come to know this man and have the chance, as I have had, to ask him questions and to learn.
Miracle in a Mug
I'm not going to get mushy about this or get "Oprah" on you, but I do want to tell you that I shall miss my dear friend more than I can say. Shortly after I joined the Marians, I became ill with a sickness that took away my ability to read, write, and even talk. As I descended into a black silence, people tended to withdraw. Not Br. Albin. He always had a kind word, a pat on the back, a smile. He and others like him gave me that flicker of hope to hang on, that shard of faith amidst hopelessness that all would be well, for all was in God's hands.
I have much for which to be thankful: professional success, a strong marriage, a loving family, and friends such as Br. Albin.
Thanksgiving is every day of the year. Nearing two years of full recovery, I find myself on an amazing spiritual "high" that hasn't dissipated but only increased. I am at some place the great American poet Walt Whitman chronicled in "Song of Myself," seeing wonder in the smallest things, such as a blade of grass ... or in the swirling of a coffee spoon inside a steaming mug. To me, these are wonders. Some need to find miracles in parlor tricks such as bleeding statues or seeing the face of Mary in a ham sandwich. I find my miracles in the mundane — in this case, in a mug.
I shall likely be hitting the road to Lichen, Poland, in 2009, to continue my visits with one of the best men I have ever met. Paula will be with me. We shall measure our lives in coffee spoons.
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of "Dan Valenti's Journal" for thedivinemercy.org